We're all locavores now - at least, we foodies who slaver to sink our teeth into something soil-fresh, seasonal, preferably harvested only a short stroll from the farmers' market. We get gooey for wild garlic and cultivate 400 ways with asparagus and rhubarb during their transient moments of glory.
Of course, it's easy to think this way in late spring, when each visit to the market brings a new treat (this is a theatre column, honest. Though if anyone wants to swap asparagus recipes, I'm all ears, and stomach). But the depths of winter are a greater challenge: six weeks of parsnips don't hold quite the same appeal.
The point, you'll be relieved to know, is that local sometimes represents the pick of the crop and sometimes a cruel restriction of choice. For example, it's a weary truism that London receives an unjust amount of attention in British arts coverage. Why should all the national press turn out for a play in a minute room above a pub, while neglecting a major production on the regional stage?
The ecology of regional theatre is fascinating. I've visited more theatres out of London in the past few weeks than I have in years: Birmingham, Southampton, Mold and Manchester. It's been bracingly eye-opening: a tiny tasting of the work that is happening around the nation, and a wholly unrepresentative sample, but a couple of things are already becoming clear.
Reviewing for a national paper, the productions I've seen have been mainstream shows in established venues rather than experimental work, but each of these important theatres seems to have a different relationship to its local community. Southampton's Nuffield is on a university campus (though not a university with an arts bias); Birmingham Rep alongside several civic monoliths; Clwyd Theatr Cymru outside town, on top of a hill offering beautiful Welsh scenery. I'm so open to correction here, but of the four venues, only Manchester's Royal Exchange seemed to have much of a buzz beyond showtime. The foyers are tempting, there's art and coffee: when I found myself killing time between shows, it wasn't a problem.
The same wasn't true elsewhere: although the shows themselves were well attended, there was less of a sense of a vital resource, however tempting the programmes on stage. How does a theatre make itself essential, even when the show is so-so? Even when there's no show at all? If you want people to use your building, is an innovative outreach department more or less important than a scrumptious cafe?
Numbers are, inevitably, part of the problem. London gets the attention, not just because so much happens there, but because it has audiences to sustain those happenings. Even a tip-top show in a leading regional theatre (and they don't come tip-topper than Mary Stuart in Mold: God, it's exciting) will only have a three-week run, because there simply isn't the audience to justify a longer span. And of course, if you don't like what your local is showing, you may not have many (any) other choices for performance. Parsnips for week after week, perhaps, and no asparagus in sight.
In Britain, as elsewhere, we're right to worry about theatre beyond the cultural capitals. My ArtsJournal neighbour Laura Collins-Hughes wrote recently about a dismaying narrowing of ambition in her (American) local companies. And on the Guardian theatre blog, the redoubtable Lyn Gardner, among others, has worried over the question. What do you reckon, people? How can regional theatres attract the attention they deserve? And how can they truly matter not just nationally, but locally?
Dept of foolishness: It was Laura Collins-Hughes who noted shrinking ambition in a previously adventurous theatre company. Molly Sheridan, meanwhile, was awed by the glossy elaboration of the Met's subscription brochure. Apologies to both for the muddle.
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